Saturday, June 30, 2018

Economic growth doesn't have to wreck environment

Do you care about the natural environment and the damage our economic activity is doing to it? What if an official agency published some good news on the subject? Would you be interested? Would you be pleased?

Apparently not. Two weeks ago the Australian Bureau of Statistics published its “Australian environmental-economic accounts” for 2015-16, which contained what certainly looks like good news, but they attracted minimal interest from the media and environmental groups.

Perhaps had the news been bad there’d have been more interest. Instead, the bureau found that, in 2015-16, the Australian population grew by 2 per cent and the economy – measured by the quantity of goods and services produced during the year – grew by 3 per cent.

But our emissions of greenhouse gases grew by just under 1 per cent, while our consumption of energy increased by less than 1 per cent and our consumption of water actually fell by 7 per cent.

Get it? We increased our output of goods and services – the amount of our economic activity – but increased our inputs of some key natural resources by less. Our generation of a particularly pernicious form of waste, greenhouse gas emissions, also increased by less.

In other words, we improved the economy’s ecological productivity. Is that not worth noting?

Actually, those figures need to be examined a lot more closely before we pop too many champagne corks. But first, we need to remember why, whether the news they bring is good or bad, it’s worth taking a lot more interest in the annual “national environmental-economic accounts” than we have been.

Which raises a less conspiratorial explanation for our lack of interest in the environmental-economic accounts: because, as associate professor Michael Vardon, of the Australian National University, has pointed out, they’re still a work in progress, with not many people knowing of their existence and even fewer knowing how to extract from their raw numbers the message they’re sending about how much progress we’ve made on the path to ecological sustainability.

That the economy exists within the natural environment, and depends on it for the renewable and non-renewable natural resources we put into our production process, for the “ecosystem services” that grow our food, among many other things, and even for somewhere to dump all the material and airborne waste we generate, is undeniable.

Yet from the moment people started thinking about “the economy”, they viewed it in isolation from the natural environment that sustains it.

A hundred years ago, this seemed sensible. The world’s human population was a fraction of what it is today and we were much poorer than we are now, so it seemed human activity was having only a small impact on the huge natural world.

We knew little about soil erosion and salinity, the wider effects of fertilisers, damming rivers and overfishing, let alone that too much burning of fossil fuels and land clearing could change the climate.

Our economic national accounts and their bottom line, gross domestic product, rest on the happy assumption that we can measure the economy without reference to the natural environment that sustains it.

As greenies never tire of pointing out, GDP takes little or no account of the environmental costs that come with the economic benefits. It even counts spending to remedy environmental damage as another benefit.

Little wonder so many people have been looking for ways to bring the two sides into reconciliation, getting them into the same box, putting their measurement on a comparable basis, so economic benefits can be weighed against environmental costs.

Under the auspices of the United Nations Statistical Commission, the world’s official statisticians have been working to expand the long-accepted rules for measuring GDP, the “system of national accounts”, into a “system of environmental-economic accounting”, or SEEA.

Our bureau of statistics has been active in this project and in 2012 the official SEEA “central framework” was published by the UN. The bureau has been working on the huge task of carrying out and integrating all the physical and monetary measurements needed to put flesh on that framework for Australia.

Progress has been slow, especially because the government’s extraction of annual alleged “efficiency dividends” from the bureau's budget has reduced the work it can do.

But now let’s examine the news that we increased our ecological productivity in 2015-16, presumably leaving us better off both economically and environmentally.

First, this is a caution for all those environmentalists who keep repeating that, in a natural world of fixed size, it’s impossible for the economy to keep growing every year forever.

They’re right, of course, but the economic growth they’re thinking of – growth in the throughput of natural resources – isn’t the growth that GDP measures. Much GDP growth comes not from increased physical throughput in the economic machine, but from increased efficiency in the machine’s conversion of inputs (the greatest of which is not natural resources, but human labour) into outputs of goods and services, aka improved productivity.

So it is conceptually possible for GDP to grow while the use of natural resources doesn’t, or even declines. If that happens, it’s good news all round.

Second, these relationships are far too complex for it to make sense to look just at the change over a period as short as a year. The accounts show that, over the nine years to 2015-16, our population grew by 16 per cent and real GDP by 28 per cent, while energy consumption increased by only 6 per cent and water consumption decreased by 2 per cent.

Emissions of greenhouse gases decreased by 13 per cent relative to 2006-07. But generation of material waste seemed to be growing at about the same rate as GDP. Not good.

Finally, we need to know a lot more about the factors driving these changes, and whether they’re lasting or temporary, before we can conclude we’re making ecological progress.

And remember we need our consumption of fossil fuel energy to be falling rapidly if we’re to make the contribution we should to global efforts to halt global warming.